Central Asia’s Broken Pipe Dreams

In 2003, I took a trip to the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan to visit my friend Tom, then serving in the Peace Corp. On my first day in Bishkek, Tom insisted showing me, of all things, a statue of Vladimir Lenin. Only months before, the statue had proudly stood in Bishkek’s Ala-Too central square. But that summer, 12 years after Kyrgyzstan’s former ruler the Soviet Union fell, the statue was removed, replaced by an angel-woman representing Freedom.

With glee, Tom pointed to Lenin’s new home - a block away from the old one. With his iconic visionary gaze, Lenin stood toweringly straight, gesturing his hand to… the American University of Central Asia.

Democrats of the world unite!
Democrats of the world unite!

This was my first introduction to the paradoxes of modern-day Central Asia. And as I would soon learn, it was just the tip of the iceberg.

These countries - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - have been caught in the crossfires of warring powers for centuries, but the 'Stans fared particularly badly in Soviet Times. One of the struggles involved the giant irrigation system Moscow laid down in the 1960s. The idea was to divert water from Central Asia's rivers and lakes and make the region a fertile producer of cotton and other goods.

Sadly, the system was poorly planned and inefficient, and after the Soviet Union collapsed, it fell into gross disrepair. Water sources continue to dry up to this day, and the lack of an adequate sewage system is polluting a lot of the remaining supply.

The most dramatic sign of the irrigation problems is the decimation of the Aral Sea. Located on the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and once the fourth-largest inland body of saltwater, by 2005 this global landmark had shrunk to 10% of its original size.

Sailing the Aral Sea, circa 2006
Sailing the Aral Sea, circa 2006

Through the efforts of Kazakhstan and the World Bank, the sea has recovered somewhat in the last few years, but there's still a ways to go.

In this episode of A Minute of Your Time, we examine Central Asia's water issues. As you’ll see, the region’s water politics makes about as much sense as placing Lenin in front of the American University. http://blip.tv/file/3415702

- Ivan Weiss